Washington fails to pass energy efficiency bill

The U.S. Senate has failed to pass an energy-efficiency bill, even though it was backed unanimously by both business and politics – a rarity in Washington. As John Dyer in Boston reports, this is not deterring President Obama from moving ahead unilaterally on important energy projects.


The sour political climate in Washington, D.C. has killed an extraordinarily rare piece of bipartisan legislation that would have improved energy efficiency in the United States. On Monday, Democrats and Republicans in the U.S. Senate could not agree to vote on the Energy Savings and Industrial Competitiveness Act – a vote everyone had predicted would easily pass – because they could not agree on whether to discuss other, more controversial energy issues.

Consumers would have paid less

“Today’s failure to move forward on a bipartisan energy-efficiency bill is yet another disappointing example of Washington’s dysfunction,” said Senator Rob Portman, an Ohio Republican who co-sponsored the energy legislation. Some Republicans made voting conditional on holding votes on other matters, such as the Keystone pipeline, which would build a massive conduit for oil from Canada to American refineries on the Gulf of Mexico, as well as proposed regulations limiting emissions from coal-fired power plants. Republicans are in favor of the controversial pipeline and oppose the new power plant regulations.

Democrats did not want to include those measures in debates prior to the energy-efficiency legislation vote. Many of their members oppose the pipeline, but support the power plant regulations. The energy bill, on the other hand, was modest but contained a bevy of conservation measures that nearly every Democrat and Republican supported, such as making it easier to purchase energy-efficient water heaters or cooling and heating systems. The legislation would also have decreased greenhouse gases and reduced the U.S. government’s energy costs.

Prior to the vote, Senator Harry Reid promised that the “bill will make our country more energy independent, protect our environment, and save consumers on their energy bills. It would also create 200,000 jobs, American jobs.”

Nearly a decade of energy partisanship

Even in the notoriously acrid partisan atmosphere of the U.S. House of Representatives, where anti-government Tea Party Republicans hold sway, lawmakers had agreed to approve a similar version of the bill. “It was like a snowstorm in July,” said Representative Peter Welch, a Democrat who sponsored the House legislation, referring to the rare concord between Democrats and Republicans on the issue.

The US, after all, hasn’t passed a major energy bill in seven years in part because Democrats and Republicans can’t overcome their differences on oil and natural gas, sustainable energy, climate change, pollution, government intervention in the economy and other issues. During that time, a fracking boom has put the US on track to becoming an energy independent exporter of natural gas.

Margot Anderson, an energy expert at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington, despaired at the lack of progress in Congress over energy. “This is larger than losing this energy-efficiency bill,” she said. “What gets lost is any momentum on energy. People are worried that if we can’t even pass that, we’re not in good shape to tackle the bigger stuff.”

Obama is going it alone

It looks as though President Barack Obama has already written off efforts in Congress to promote new energy policies. In recent weeks, he has been touting his own unilateral actions on energy, including promoting solar power and supporting plans proposed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to impose stricter limits on coal-fired power plant emissions without Congressional approval next year. Republican-connected business groups have sought to block the EPA’s plans in court, but the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that the agency has the authority to regulate polluting gases.

Last week Obama said his efforts to boost solar power would take the equivalent of 80 million cars off the road for a year and power as much as 130,000 homes. He also touted the EPA’s rules as a major step in the US living up to its international commitments to combat climate change. “Unfortunately, inside of Washington, we still have some climate deniers who shout loud,” Obama said. “But they’re wasting people’s time on a settled debate.”


Photo credit: U.S. Air Force Photo/Senior Airman Brian Ybarbo

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